In my sermon for Pentecost, I quoted Annie Dillard on mainline worship. At Pentecostal churches, people still expect amazing things to happen. On the fringes of Pentecostalism, there is snake handling. Reports came out yesterday of the death of Mack Wolford, a leader among snake-handling Christian groups in Appalachia. He died after being bitten by a rattlesnake. His father had also died of a rattler bite. More here and here. A profile of Wolford, written by Julia Duin, that appeared last year in the Washington Post, is available here.
I had thought about using snake-handling as an example in my sermon, but then thought better of it, because I had preached about snake stories only a couple of months ago, during Lent.
A worthy read about the practice, and about the subculture in which it survives is Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington. Covington got interested in it while reporting on an attempted manslaughter trial in which a snake-handling pastor was accused of forcing his wife, whom he thought was having an affair, to put her hand into a cage of rattlers. Covington followed various snake handlers around for quite some time, and finally handled himself during a service before extricating himself from the movement.
His experience, and his writing about it, became the focus of an interesting debate between Stephen Prothero and Robert Orsi over the scholar’s role in studying religion, especially to what extent the scholar should engage his or her own beliefs and practices while studying another’s. Orsi applauded Covington’s engagement with snake-handling; Prothero was critical. The exchange appeared in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, but seems no longer available online, although the original essay by Orsi to which Prothero was responding appeared as a chapter in Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth.
When I taught Theory and Method in the Study of Religion, I used Orsi’s book, and Prothero’s critique of his position as a central element in helping students understand how to negotiate the complexities of the discipline of Religious Studies.
Ralph W. Hood, professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, has also studied the phenomenon quite intensely for decades. He has collected a marvelous archive of videos detailing the practice